YouTube Is Cracking Down On Videos And Creators Sharing COVID Vaccine Misinformation
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Video streaming platform YouTube announced today that it is expanding its ban on vaccine misinformation. The company now says all false information about approved vaccines will be removed from its platform. NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel has been tracking vaccine misinformation and joins us now to talk about what this ban will mean. Hey, Jeff.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there, Leila.
FADEL: So let's start with today's announcement. What's YouTube actually doing here?
BRUMFIEL: So it's basically expanding what it defines as vaccine misinformation. Up until now, many social media platforms have really been focused on COVID-19 vaccines. But, of course, anti-vaccine activism predates COVID by many decades, actually. And before COVID, it was very much focused on stopping childhood vaccination against things like measles and chickenpox. Now, YouTube says it's noticed more false claims about those childhood vaccinations in recent months, and so it's decided that those sorts of videos should be taken down as well. And, by the way, we should mention that YouTube's parent company, Google, is a financial supporter of NPR.
FADEL: So what does this mean in practical terms?
BRUMFIEL: Well, it's caused some of the biggest promoters of vaccine misinformation to be completely kicked off YouTube, basically - in particular, a gentleman by the name of Joseph Mercola, who runs a multimillion-dollar natural supplements business, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who for years now has been a pretty major anti-vaccine activist. The Center for Countering Digital Hate, which tracks vaccine misinformation, has had these two at the top of their Disinformation Dozen, a list of some of the worst spreaders of these bad vaccine takes. And that group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, announced that around half a million subscribers are no longer going to see anti-vaccine content as a result of YouTube's move here.
FADEL: So that sounds like pretty good news for anyone concerned about making sure scientifically accurate information about vaccines reaches the public, right?
BRUMFIEL: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I spoke to Imran Ahmed. He's chief executive of the center. And he says that he really applauds YouTube's announcement.
IMRAN AHMED: It's the right moral decision to take as a company that profits from content.
BRUMFIEL: And beyond that, he expects this is going to have a real impact on those who've lost YouTube today as a platform.
AHMED: It's damaged their ability to spread their message, to grow their audiences and, more importantly for them, to make money.
BRUMFIEL: But he also says this is really far from the end of this whole situation. Anti-vaccine advocates still have plenty of ways to spread misinformation.
FADEL: And what ways are those?
BRUMFIEL: Well, while YouTube took action for - while YouTube took action today, the Center for Countering Digital Hate says Facebook and Instagram are still hosting some pretty big accounts. They estimate the Disinformation Dozen has millions of followers on those two platforms. And then there are a whole bunch of other less-regulated platforms out there - places like Gab and Parler and Telegram. And these folks are still finding an audience there.
But an even bigger outlet might be right-wing media. So, for example, Mercola has made some recent appearances on the show of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. He's made a whole bunch of false claims about vaccines there. And both Joseph Mercola and RFK Jr. said in statements to NPR that they are absolutely going to keep spreading their message any way they can. For them, this is really a free speech issue.
FADEL: So what's the consequence of anti-vaccine advocates being able to flourish in these other spaces?
BRUMFIEL: Imran Ahmed and others say it's a lot better than allowing these folks to continue to grab really huge audiences on major platforms like YouTube. But I think there's something else happening, and that's that people who spend time in these alternate spaces on the internet, and particularly on politically conservative spaces in the internet, are being bombarded with more of the stuff than ever before. And the consequences of that are real. According to polling from Kaiser, Democrats are now the most vaccinated group in America, and Republicans are second to last, just ahead of the uninsured. So it's created this situation where how you vote is most likely to determine whether you're vaccinated.
FADEL: NPR's science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, thank you.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you very much.
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